Music Opinion

Cold Chisel's 'Khe Sanh' hot still

By | | comments |
Cold Chisel's 'Khe Sanh' is still one of Australia's most popular songs (Screenshot via YouTube)

With Anzac Day approaching, IA music man David Kowalski remembers 'Khe Sanh', an Aussie song that wasn’t a hit on initial release but has since assumed the status of de facto national anthem.



“We learned more from a three-minute record... than we ever learned in school.”

In the case of the Vietnam War, that was exactly how it was for me, with an Aussie song coming into play that wasn’t a hit on its initial release but has since been elevated to the status of de facto national anthem.

Every 25 April, Anzac Day remembers those who serve in the defence forces – past and present – and specifically those who have lost their lives in wartime. 

As a school student in the 1980s, the Vietnam War wasn’t talked about and certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum. My education on the war was mainly through some timely pop records.


'Khe Sanh' by Cold Chisel was banned on commercial radio and stalled in the charts on its initial release in 1978. The song tells the story of a returned Vietnam veteran with a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as many ex-service people suffer (especially if they see heavy combat action).

The protagonist can’t settle back into suburban life after all he’s been through and never quite finds the peace he seeks.

It is somewhat ironic that a song with such a bleak and dark portrait of trauma has become a song that more Australians know the words to than 'Advance Australia Fair'.

On the other hand, It isn't ironic because it is one of the best pieces of Australian songwriting out there.


The other track informing my unorthodox education was a song that has done more to change Australian society and culture than almost any other record of the past 40 years.

Songwriter John Schumann wrote 'I Was Only 19' based on the stories and recollections of his brother-in-law (the “Denny” in the song is Schumann’s wife).

A lot of Vietnam veterans felt invisible and misunderstood until this song was released by Schumann and his then-band Redgum in 1983. It went a long way to changing Australia’s attitudes toward those who fought in a very unpopular war.

After its release, a welcome home parade was belatedly organised in 1987 and as a nation, we began to accept the reality of this dark chapter in our history.

Schumann explains on the 1983 live album Caught In The Act that the song’s subtitle, 'A Walk In The Light Green,' relates to the maps that servicemen studied before going into the jungle. Dark green on the map meant thick cover and few, if any, landmines. Light green on the map meant light jungle, not much cover and possibly heaps of mines. 

Lyrics capture the very real danger:

“Any step could mean your last one on two legs...”

And in case you've ever wondered... the "SLR" mentioned is not a camera but a self-loading rifle: standard issue for Australian soldiers in the army at the time.


Some songwriters have seen fit to celebrate the contribution of those who work hard in the war effort behind the scenes — those who actively contribute but not on the front lines with weapons in their hands.

'Scorn Of The Womenby Weddings Parties Anything (WPA) tells the story of one such person, rejected for military service due to poor eyesight, who contributed to aircraft mechanics and maintenance during wartime.

The ignorance and cruelty shown to him are heartbreaking, as soulfully expressed by WPA frontman Michael Thomas


Recently, I had the good fortune to meet a songwriter named Fred Smith and see him perform at a gig.

He is both a songwriter par excellence and a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) diplomat who has seen the horror of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan first-hand. He has turned his emotional response to these events into powerful songs. Smith was the feature of an Australian Story documentary about his experiences in Afghanistan and Bougainville.

This tale of an Australian soldier in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, during recent conflict – told from the soldier's point of view – is one worth hearing.


David Kowalski is a writer, musician, educator, sound engineer and podcaster. His podcasts 'The Sound and the Fury Podcast' and 'Audio Cumulus' can be heard exclusively here. You can follow David on Twitter @sound_fury_pod.

Related Articles

Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by David Kowalski
Farnham's Voice soars as mainstream media shuns Oz music

In the midst of controversy over the mainstream media not giving Australian music a ...  
Queen deemed too extreme for pre-teens

No strangers to controversy, Queen is back in the headlines for a faux scandal that ...  
In a week of farewells, some good news comes rolling in

With the tragic loss of some big names in the music industry lately, the announc ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate